Do Majors Matter? 5 Times They Do—and Don’t

Gabrielle Karol
Posted

As the fall semester starts, one question will undoubtedly be lobbed at millions of college students across the nation: What are you majoring in?

And then, the cringe-inducing follow-up: What are you gonna do with a degree in anthropology/zoology/religious studies/medieval history?

The question is especially timely: With student loan debt in the United States climbing over $1 trillion and the job market still sputtering, choosing a major seems increasingly important as students contemplate how they will pay off those looming loans.

Every year, the media is abuzz with which majors lead to the best job prospects. (Architecture and clinical psychology majors have the highest rates of unemployment, the newest studies say; petroleum engineering majors could be making $178,000, no problem.)

But really: Is that one choice in college going to singlehandedly make or break your job prospects? To find out how much undergraduate majors really matter, we spoke to the people who count most: hiring managers.

Even if you’re long past this stage of your life, you’ll want to read these surprising quotes to find out if your major could still be holding you back years after graduation—or how to spin it to best advantage in your next interview.

Here’s what they told us:

1. Majors Matter More When You’re Young

“For more entry-level positions, having the suggested major listed on the job posting is more relevant, and is definitely one of the top criteria I’m looking for,” says Caleb Leiker, hiring manager for TheLadders, an online job-matching service for professionals. “Ten years into a career, however, your progression in the field is more important, and I’m less likely to care about your undergraduate major.”

2. Your School and GPA Are More Important

“I like to see a history of high achievement,” says Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management, one of the nation’s few woman-owned and -operated investment firms. “If you go to a great school, have risen to leadership positions in your extracurricular activities and have achieved a very high GPA, that matters more to me than the particular major you chose.”

3. Has Your Major Given You Relevant Skills?

“If your major or background isn’t listed as the preferred credentials for a position, you still have a shot if you make it clear that you have the skills required to do the job well,” says Jeanine Hamilton, founder and president of Hire Partnership, a full-service staffing and workforce solutions firm based in Boston.

Mitchell D. Weiss, a financial services exec, entrepreneur and adjunct professor at the University of Hartford, agrees wholeheartedly. “Use your major to help you make the pitch for the job you want,” he says. “If your major seems unconventional in light of the job you’re applying for, use your cover letter to highlight the relevant skills you learned that the hiring manager might be surprised by. I knew an English major who applied for finance jobs, and he ended up getting one by stressing how his communication skills would help him succeed in that position.”

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4. In-Demand Skills Trump All

“If you’re applying to an engineering job, then yes, an engineering major is going to have the competitive edge,” says Suki Shah, CEO of GetHired.com, a hiring solutions service for businesses. “But for other industries and positions, it’s much less important.” A liberal arts degree, for example, can be applicable for a variety of jobs. One aspect of what you’ll want to stress is how your particular major taught you to think and problem-solve.

“And even for jobs that would appear more major-specific, like computer science-based positions such as programming,” says Shah, “there’s such a demand right now for good programmers and technologists that if you were able to teach yourself programming languages and demonstrate them on a skills test or through a portfolio of work, you would still have a very good chance at getting hired, even if you majored in something less relevant.”

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5. Remember, It’s Just One Piece of Information

“If you think about all the information on your résumé—your relevant work experiences or internships, your extracurricular activities, your volunteer work, your GPA, etc.—your major is just one small data point,” says Kaplan.

Mitchell D. Weiss agrees: “Your first objective is to get them on the phone with you, or score an in-person interview. This is an opportunity to wow them, and to really emphasize your skills and your assets. If you successfully do that, your major will matter all the less.”

  • Maria Elizabeth Hall

    This one of the best articles I have read lately that makes sense, when it comes to bringing high school graduates, to realize that choosing a major is critical for their future success. I  hope many parents read this so they can  share it with their high school and college kids. Thanks

  • Shazzer

    I think your major does matter quite a bit. I majored in History, completely useless. After several years of working in entry level finance jobs, I got an MBA. To this day, 15 years after I graduated from undergrad, interviewers still bring up my History major! Even though I have an MBA and 15 years of relevant work experience!

  • Allison090902

    Yes! So relevant. It’s become our default to second guess college students choice of major when we should really be encouraging them to do everything possible to make that major marketable. A major doesn’t matter as much as internships, involvement in organizations/clubs, and volunteer experience (offering to redesign a non-profits website for free, organizing events, fundraising, working in the HR office, etc).  

    • http://twitter.com/robwilsontv Bobby Dinero

      @172978b97f47bae9ec3e5e49213b33fd:disqus Marketing yourself is important, but not more than your skills. We’re all paid in proportion to that value that we can add to a business or via our own business.  While everyone has an opportunity to be successful, some majors will always be more highly valued than others.

  • Still gratefully employed…

    I had to LOL a bit when I read that architecture and clinical psychology have the highest rates of unemployment – my fiance is an architect and I majored in psychology (though I now work in marketing).  I thank the universe every day that we are both employed right now!  And thanks for this article – I’m considering looking for a different job closer to home (I commute an hour one-way), but I’ve been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find something worthwhile considering my “mixed bag” of credentials.

  • http://www.budgetorfudget.com/ Budgetorfudget

    I think as far as what you’re qualified for, how relevant your major is is dependent upon the field; however, speaking as a math major working in HR, it can give you a boost up. For example, my resume has a lot of real-world experience showing that I can work with people; however, employers generally see my degree in math as being advantageous because they perceive me as being more technologically and analytically skilled, and thus a well-balanced potential employee…

  • http://twitter.com/aly_dugan Alysia

    I feel a deep sense of relief every time I remind myself that I’m an accounting major. Someone, somewhere will always need a bean counter.

  • Ruebix78

    I work in college admissions and I cringe every time I talk to a family where the parents are pushing their children towards majors like accounting and nursing IF the kid clearly has no interest.  Encouraging someone to major in something they have no interest in just beause it is a popular field right now and they may be successful is a terrible idea, especially considering the fact that a lucrative field right now may be completely outsourced in another 10 years.  Liberal Arts majors can do very well if they make sure they are developing the right skills through internships and work experiences.  Accountants and nurses are great, but are taught to follow the rules (for good reasons).  Liberal Arts majors are taught to think critically, develop strong communication skills, and look for new solutions – these skills are very helpful, and translate very well into leadership and management positions as you being to climb the ladder. 

    Yes, it is usually easier to find a job right away if you have a more marketable major (our accountant majors get hired right away and make great salaries, but it’s been much harder for nurses the past two years – it’s been taking an average of 8 months to get jobs, but eventually they do), but after a few years that advantage goes away.  I graduated college 12 years ago with friends in a variety of majors, and they are all doing reasonably well right now – there are a few doctors, teachers, and accountants, but the Philosophy and English majors got their doctorates and are college professors, the Psychology majors mostly work in marketing, HR, higher education, or counseling, and even the French major still managed to make a killing in the real estate market the past few years – go figure!  While there is some burnout among the teachers and boredom with the accountants, I’ve seen that less with the liberal arts majors because it is so easy for them to switch to a completely different career, and many have over the past few years.

    College is expensive – I would recommend beign smart about the amount of debt you take on (I will be the first to admist that coming out $80k in debt with a Political Science or Psychology degree is a bad idea), but realize that majoring something you are not interested in just because you think you can make a lot of money really isn’t a good plan either.

    • http://twitter.com/robwilsontv Bobby Dinero

      @4c59bb22077c11b97c6826adf9de440b:disqus You make some great points!  I 100% agree that people should not pursue a career that they do not love.

      However, why not major in something that will actually give you marketable skills that you can sell to a company right away, and also take (or minor in) liberal arts as part of a well rounded education.

      It’s true that hot industries can change, but folks with marketable skills that are committed to life long learning will be equipped to adapt to changing conditions.

      • DC

        Lifelong learning will help one to survive, but that is conservative. A window washer and a hotdog cart owner can pull $100k per year with little overhead.
        Choosing a degree that can turn your passion into a business proposition will result in an enviable living and an impressive resume early on.  

  • Cros88

    Clinical psychology is a graduate (PhD) degree. Clinical psychologists, not recent graduates with a college degree, have many job opportunities.

  • Greg

    There are quite a few of us out here without a college degree & I am curious what your advise is job hunting without a degree?

    • DC

      you could start by getting a degree to realize your typo in the above sentence

  • http://twitter.com/robwilsontv Bobby Dinero

    @42eafc41948b52f093a5e6988f742ddc:disqus I think we are starting to enter a time when the question is not “Where did you go?” but rather “What do you know?” If you can use your resume to demonstrate your competence in your field, that will alway catch the eye of hiring managers looking for talent.  What field are you in?

  • Liz Leyden

    Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Skills and majors that are in-demand when you start a field of study could be worthless when you finish. Ask anyone who graduated into the 2000 tech bust, or anyone who completed a nursing degree in the last 5 years.

  • yaroosh

    Do you think risk management degree is important